Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 May 2013

Parsing Iran’s Goals and Intentions

Why Iran hates us
Why Iran seems to hate Israel
Those maddening threats
Iran’s weapons proving grounds


Among all the oceans of ink spilled about Iran and its nuclear program, there has been far too little about the most important element. Pundit after pundit has focused on uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons technology—which most of them understand about as well as they do astrophysical cosmology.

Neglected in all this uninformed speculation is Iran itself. What is Iran really like? What do its people think? What are their goals? What motivates them? Is Iran really a nation of religious fanatics eager to begin nuclear Armageddon with Israel so that the Twelfth Imam will return?

Many Americans think so. But some smart and well-informed people don’t. Here, verbatim, is a direct quote from Efraim Halevy, a former director of Israel’s highly respected intelligence agency, Mossad:
“The [Iranians] are not demonic, and they are not messianic. They are very, very cool calculators when it comes to their direct interests. When you have the shotgun right next to your temples, sometimes, clarity emerges.”
Threats are inherently a combination of capabilities and intentions. We and Israel have obsessed incessantly about Iran’s capabilities in missiles and nuclear weapons.

Those are valid concerns. Iran does have a missile program, and it gives Hezbollah and Hamas missiles to strike Israel. The number of centrifuges Iran has installed for nuclear-fuel enrichment does seem too large for just an electric power industry. Add to that the fact that uranium-plutonium power plants have proved themselves unsafe, and you have to consider the likelihood that Iran is really after nuclear weapons, not electric power.

But what are Iran’s other intentions? What are its motivations? Is it really eager to nuke Israel the first chance it gets? Before we send out our own planes and missiles and start a war, we at least ought to do some serious analysis.

In answering those questions, many Americans and Israelis have taken inflammatory statements of Iran’s leaders at face value. They are understandably frightened and outraged. But do those statements reflect what Iran will actually do, now, in the future, or even in a crisis?

We cannot yet read minds. But we can read facts and history. We can put ourselves in Iran’s position. And by doing so we can calculate what is most likely. This essay tries to do that, based not on Iran’s leaders’ words but on deeds and historical facts.

Why Iran hates us

We must begin our analysis with history. Why does Iran hate us so? It has not been a belligerent, aggressive or expansionist power since the early Middle Ages. It has certainly not been a war mongering state. It is nothing like North Korea.

But it’s easy to see why Iran hates us. In 1953, our CIA, together with Britain’s spooks, engineered a coup that deposed Iran’s duly elected and moderate leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. In his place we installed the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The Shah started out as a constitutional monarch but quickly became a harsh dictator. He ruled Iran with an elegant, smiling, and obsequious face to the West but an iron fist inside. His secret police, the Savak, were renowned for their “efficiency,” ruthlessness and brutality.

So once-democratic Iran became a totalitarian state without freedom or law. The only law was the Shah and the Western interests he represented. That state of affairs lasted until the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979.

What was the trigger for this massive Western interference in Iran’s internal politics and sovereignty, which turned a democracy into a dictatorship? You guessed it: oil. Iran was the first Middle-Eastern country to nationalize its oil resources, then mostly British. It did so by democratic action in its elected parliament in 1951.

Now, for a moment, fast forward to today. Greater Arabia has long ago nationalized its Western oil companies, once called the “Seven Sisters.” It even, for a time, used oil embargoes to play politics. But now that it is strictly business, we allow its cartel creation, OPEC, to set global oil prices and milk the world. Our former president, Dubya, even walked hand in hand with the Saudi King.

Can you begin to see why Iranians might feel unfairly treated and despise us?

But that’s not all. Far from it. When Iranian revolutionaries deposed the Shah, they captured our and Canada’s embassies in Tehran.

They took over 60 Americans hostage. They could have imprisoned the hostages as “spies,” with plausible excuse. (Every embassy in the world has intelligence agents working out of it.) They could have held Stalinist show trials and executed them publicly, as Fidel Castro did his enemies after he had won his revolution. If they were really brutal and uncivilized, they could have beheaded the hostages and circulated videos of their beheading, as Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did (much later) with reporter Daniel Pearl.

But the Iranian revolutionaries did none of these things. They bargained and postured for 444 days and then returned the hostages unharmed.

So what did we do in return? We incited Saddam’s Iraq to attack Iran, which it did in 1980. The resulting war went on for eight long years, killing an estimated one million people in Iran.

At the time, that loss amounted to 2% of Iran’s population—the equivalent of six million Americans today. Besides that tragic loss, the war accomplished nothing. No territory changed hands, and Iran and Iraq remained wary enemies.

Do you begin to see why Iran doesn’t like us? Actions have consequences. Iran’s hatred of us did not come from Islam, from the Qur’an, from Allah, or from the Twelfth Imam. It was a natural consequence of our own acts.

Why Iran seems to hate Israel

I write “seems to” because Iran’s enmity to Israel is as hard to explain as its hatred of us is easy. Iran has no border with Israel. Except by proxy, through Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, Israel has never fought Iran. And Iran has no history of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, Iran in its Persian guise harbored Jewish scholars, artisans and merchants in peace for centuries.

Like most of the great Islamic Empires, ancient Persia had a quarrel with crusading Christians, not Jews. And the extent of the enmity has been greatly exaggerated. When Moors captured the Christain Spanish Kingdom or Granada, for example, there was no climactic, bloody battle. The Moors had an army, to be sure. But they simply offered the Granadans a better deal than had the Spanish Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon to the north, which had been Granada’s rivals for centuries. So the Moors just walked in, invited, and remained there until crusaders kicked them out centuries later.

In a proper world, Iran and Israel would be trading partners and allies. Apart from Turkey, they are by far the most advanced nations in the Middle East. Both are resourceful, industrious nations with a well-educated elite. If they cooperated, they could make the desert bloom from the Alborz Mountains to the Gulf of Aqaba.

But they are not allies. They are enemies. And it’s fruitless to analyze who started the enmity. What matters more is how little sense it makes.

If you think really hard, you can find only three reasons that make any sense at all. The first and strongest is that Iran hates us and Israel is our creation. Iran can’t get back at us because we are too far away and too powerful. So it displaces its hatred of us onto Israel because Israel is closer, smaller, and less powerful. For the sins of its fathers (us), Israel must pay.

A second plausible reason for Iran’s enmity toward Israel is territorial. Israel is a creation of the US and the West—a belated attempt to atone for the Holocaust. It just happens to be on land that Muslims have occupied since the Jewish diaspora after the fall of Rome. So Iran feels sympathy for the Palestinian refugees—fellow Muslims—and for the plight of people who have legitimate grievances but (they think) no way to redress those grievances except perpetual, senseless violence.

The third reason for Iran’s hatred of Israel is indeed religion. But that reason is the weakest of the three and a relatively recent development. Neither Iran nor its predecessor (Persia) has been particularly religious since the collapse of the great Islamic empires centuries ago. Neither has ever been anti-Semitic, at least until the territorial dispute with Israel arose.

Iran was a thriving, secular democracy before we helped install the Shah in 1953. Most of its educated elite are secular even today. (That’s one reason for constant internal conflict.) Iran turned to religion only because religion was the only political force in Iran strong enough to depose the Shah and set Iran free. So religion in Iran, as in much of the Islamic world, is bound up with politics.

Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei epitomizes the religious-based hatred that grew out of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. He is a bitter old man. He spent much of his life as an exile during the Shah’s brutal reign. He is an ivory tower thinker immersed in scripture, with little experience in politics before the Revolution he helped start. His cloistered thinking and his old man’s hatreds are dangerous, to be sure. But his actions so far have been cautious.

Those maddening threats

With these facts and history in mind, we can now put Iran’s leaders’ outrageous statements in perspective. But first we must acknowledge them. It does no good to bury your head in the sand.

Both the Supreme Leader and Iran’s current President Ahmadinejad have questioned Israel’s right to exist and have expressed a wish for its destruction. In addition, Ahmadinejad has questioned the reality of the Holocaust. (To my knowledge, neither man has called for Iran to become the instrument of Israel’s destruction. Although nonetheless troubling, their statements were abstract, general, and long term.)

These are not encouraging statements, especially to descendants of the Holocaust and their few remaining survivors.

But people don’t always mean exactly what they say. Far less do they always act on what they say.

In 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations. He said, “We will bury you.” At that time, he was the second most powerful man in the world, with a nuclear arsenal able to extinguish our species. He was not a physically attractive man, and his ugly face, twisted in anger, became a visual metaphor for the Soviet menace.

Two years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, this selfsame Khrushchev made a deal with our president Jack Kennedy, to avoid nuclear Armageddon. A year after that, after Kennedy was assassinated, Khrushev reportedly wept on hearing the news.

So before we start a war that equates Iran’s leaders’ statements with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, perhaps we ought at least to spend a few moments analyzing them. Who was their audience? What were these maddening statements intended to achieve? Politicians—even Islamic ones—do not act at random. They usually have specific goals in mind, and those goals usually involve motivating specific people to do (or not do) this or that.

It is unlikely that Israel was the intended audience for those remarks. You do not threaten an enemy with genocide, particularly one as touchy as Israel (with as good reason!), or one as well equipped and trained militarily. If you really want to destroy an enemy as well prepared as Israel, you don’t announce your intention in advance. You keep it secret and mount a sneak attack, as Japan did at Pearl Harbor, or as Hitler did in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pack and later invading the Soviet Union.

You don’t have to be a brilliant politician or strategist to understand these points. You just have not to be stupid. However full of hate they may seem, Iran’s leaders are not stupid.

So who was the intended audience, and what was the message?

The first audience was undoubtedly these pols’ primary and usual audience: the Iranian people themselves. The Islamic Revolution has not been good for Iran’s economy. It hasn’t been as bad as Communism was for Russia because it didn’t come along with a made-up, counterfactual economic theory. Private markets and private initiative remained possible in Iran.

But just like the old Soviet Union (and perhaps like any similar dictatorship), Iran has become a kleptocracy. Iran’s religious and military leaders have taken over most of Iran’s basic industry and controlled or influenced much of its business.

You don’t have to have a silly economic theory like Communism to destroy a well-functioning economy. All you have to have is a political loyalty test for economic activity. Put basic industry in the hands of your political cronies. Disadvantage or suppress others’ free enterprise. Give your cronies government handouts and permits and the best (or only) higher education at state universities.

Then, slowly but surely, meritocracy, innovation, private initiative and economic health will wither as a weakening economy slips into your corrupt hands. You will own a diminished nation, but it will be yours and your cronies’. That has been the story for most of human history, until the global revolution that Anglo-American business culture has wrought. (That’s one reason why the modern business corporation has been one of the most economically liberating developments in human history. It separates economic activity from politics.)

That’s what was (and still is) happening in Iran. So what did Iran’s leaders do? They pointed their fingers abroad, at Israel and the US. “See,” they said, “look what those nasty Jews are doing, at the Great Satan’s bidding. You must suffer economically as we become like Sparta to redress the Palestinians’ grievances. The Jews and Yanks are the villains, not we. Stick with us and we can defeat them. Isn’t that worth a little suffering?”

All the while, the Supreme Leader and his minion were thinking, but not saying, something quite different. “The more they hate Israel and the US, the less they’ll notice how bad our economic management has been. We can keep our power and our wealth, no matter how badly we abuse them, as long as we keep hate strong.”

Pointing the finger at external villains is not new. It was old when Caesar did it. It almost worked in our own last two presidential elections, although we presume to be far more sophisticated a people than Iran’s. If you want to know when pols are trying to distract your attention from their own thievery or pathetic mismanagement, just be mindful when they urge you to hate or attack a nation that hasn’t attacked yours.

The second audience and reason for Iran’s leaders’ threats are bit more subtle, and unique to Islam. As you may have noticed, Islam is in schism. There are many sects, including Sufis, Salafists and Wahhabis. But the two main ones are the Sunni and Shiites.

Iran is a Shiite nation. So is most of Iraq. Almost all the rest of Greater Arabia is Sunni. So is Al Qaeda.

All Qaeda and its jihadists hate Shiites almost as much as they hate Israel and the US. They have bombed numerous Shiite mosques, shrines, weddings and funerals, in Iraq and increasingly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So far, Iran hasn’t seemed to notice. It hasn’t gone to the ramparts, except perhaps in Iraq, where its proxies increasingly target Sunni jihadis and sometimes (by accident?) Sunni civilians. Instead, Iran’s leaders have tried to defuse the conflict, in much the same way that they have misdirected justified anger at their economic mismanagement. They have pointed their accusing fingers abroad.

“The Jews and hated Yanks are your enemies, not we,” they say. “See what horrible things they are doing in Palestine. We Iranian Shiites are your brothers. We would never do anything like that! So direct your anger at our true common enemies, not at us.”

That plea is not gaining much traction, but for a different reason. Iran is also playing a very different game, which has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with pragmatic, selfish, secular self-interest.

Iran’s weapons proving grounds

What is the only state on Earth today that has its chief weapons proving grounds in foreign countries? What is the only state on Earth for which foreigners suffer and die to test its weapons in real combat?

You guessed it. The answer is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran learned some lessons from its Pyrrhic “victory” in the eight-year war with Saddam—if you can call losing about 2% of your population and gaining nothing a “victory.” It learned that wars are safest when fought by proxy, by foreign soldiers on others’ territory. And that’s what Iran has done ever since.

What are Iran’s chief weapons proving grounds? Lebanon and Gaza. Iran has cleverly exploited Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s hatred for Israel to get them to test Iran’s weapons under real combat conditions.

Hamas and Hezbollah supply the soldiers and manpower. They do the fighting and dying. They fire missiles into Israel and report where and how they strike (if the Israeli and international press doesn’t do a better job). Then they suffer retaliatory strikes by Israel’s Air Force, testing how easy the weapons are to move and hide, and how well they survive aerial bombardment. You couldn’t ask for a better, more realistic proving ground.

But that’s not all. Who finances these willing foreigners in their deadly testing of Iran’s weapons? Iran itself finances some of it, but so do others. A vast amount of funding comes from rich donors throughout the Sunni Islamic world, including Saudi Arabia, who consider jihad against Israel a “charity.”

So here’s the plan. Politically, Iran points the finger at Jews and Yanks, saying that they are the enemy, and that Muslims should all cooperate, Shiite and Sunni alike. At the same time, it recruits willing testers of its advanced weapons in Lebanon and Gaza (and maybe soon, Syria), who will fight and die proving and improving Iran’s weapon designs. And all the while, Iran relies on rich Sunni donors to help finance this effort in the common cause of “Islamic jihad.” These same weapons whose development Sunni donors are financing may some day be turned against the Sunnis themselves, if the schism and Al Qaeda’s provocations ever turn into war.

A brilliant strategy? You bet. You can’t get much more brilliant than having your enemies—present or potential—help pay for your own weapons development.

Iran is far from North Korea, and not just in geography. North Korea is all of 59 years old. Iran, in its Persian guise, is nearly as old as China. It has an ancient and proud culture, skilled in the arts of bargaining, subtlety, intrigue and diplomacy.

A critical mass of Iran’s elite apparently think all this is necessary and desirable. Why? Because the West has given Iran’s neighbors and potential Sunni enemies advanced weapons to protect their oil (and in the Saudis’ case, their twisted medieval monarchy). Iran doesn’t trust the West, with good reason, as described above. So after being a nonaggressive regional power for several centuries, Iran has decided to pursue a path of armament. In doing so, it has ruthlessly exploited other people in the region and exacerbated regional tension with Israel.


Like most people with a touch of paranoia (including us, during the Cold War), Israelis who want war with Iran exaggerate Israel’s prominence in Iran’s thinking. Yet in making his most recent threat toward Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader described Israel as “not big enough to stand out among the Iranian nation’s enemies.”

That was an odd assertion, with more than a touch of paranoia. Perhaps the Ayatollah was referring to us Yanks. But we are far away and, after our near-debacle in Iraq, no longer in such a belligerent mood. More likely, he was also referring to Iran’s Sunni neighbors, who are numerous, rich, endowed with modern Western arsenals, and getting richer yet on the profits from their oil, while Iran suffers our oil boycott.

There are people inside Iran who want to change this state of affairs. They are not our friends. Few, if any, in Iran are now our friends, after all we have done or helped do to Iran. But there are many educated realists and pragmatists who desperately want Iran to become a normal country again. Some are skilled in business. Others are educators, scientists and economists. Many are skilled and experienced pols. All are Muslims, but none is a fundamentalist or jihadi. They are well-educated, largely secular, modern people who happen to have been born in Iran.

These people are not isolated and obsequious sycophants of their Supreme Leader, like North Korea’s people of Kim Jong Un. They have satellite dishes, cell phones and the Internet. They have been biding their time for over a generation. They supported the Islamic Revolution only to get rid of the Shah and Savak. Now they want their country back. Some may be running for president in the next election this fall. Others will be running for Iran’s parliament.

These veterans of Iran’s cataclysmic changes are not alone. Demographically, Iran is a young country, like most other nations in the region. Its youth, at least in the cities, spend as much time on the Internet and their cell phones as they do in mosques. They are not interested in their parents’ grievances, however justified they may be. They look forward to a golden future when people in their region start cooperating and trading and stop hating. It was these youth, not the aging political warriors, who fueled the abortive Green Revolution four years ago.

That’s why this fall’s elections are so important. The Ayatollah is slowly losing his grip on power. His selfish mismanagement of Iran’s economy is becoming more apparent to more people, and he’s not getting any younger. He may be unwilling—or unable—to steal another election.

In any event, we must understand that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Iran’s Sarah Palin. He rose to national power on the votes of uneducated, religious country people, just as Sarah Palin tried to do. His highest office before becoming Iran’s president was mayor of Tehran. He knew nothing about foreign policy or international affairs. All he knew was how to manipulate his own people with demagoguery, external consequences be damned. And unlike Sarah Palin on Russia, he couldn’t even pretend to see us or Israel from his porch.

Whatever happens, Ahmadinejad will be gone in about three months. That’s the blessing of term limits, even in a theocracy. Replacing him will be the best chance to change Iran’s direction, for its own betterment and the world’s, since the Islamic Revolution.

People who are running could do a much better job. I don’t want to mention their names for a simple reason. Iran doesn’t need or want the advice of any Yank, even one who, like me, is not unsympathetic toward Iran’s current condition because of the historic damage we have done it.

Any support by us or by Israel, whether direct or indirect, open or clandestine, would be the kiss of death for any Iranian electoral candidate. I’m even afraid to know their names, although I suspect who some of them are.

The best we and the Israelis can do for ourselves and the world for the next three months is to sit on the sidelines and shut up. No war-mongering. No threats. No red lines. Just silence and patience. We can maintain economic sanctions, but we shouldn’t tighten them, gloat about them or discuss them.

We have meddled in Iran’s internal affairs quite enough. So now we ought to stand aside and let Iran heal itself, if it can. There is a chance it will soon restore the democracy that our engineered coup stole from it in 1953.

On the other hand, the Ayatollah may steal another election and get away with doing so again. Or legitimate elections may produce results we don’t like. If so, there will be plenty of time to bluster, threaten and draw red lines afterward. But not now.

Our President, I think, understands this in his bones. He is a brilliant and patient man, with enormous emotional intelligence. He no longer has to seek re-election—another of the great blessings of term limits. So he can do what’s right.

I have little doubt he will do so. He will resist enormous pressure from the Israel lobby here at home, from Israel abroad, and from all our Sunni Arab allies who fear an armed Iran. But his legacy will be far surer as a peacemaker than as the man who, through negligent threats and bluster, caused a needless or premature war with Iran that might destroy the still-fragile global economy yet again.

Sometimes we yanks are anti-intellectual and anti-expert. We yearn to shoot from the hip. We ignore our better leaders. But when we do so, we often shoot ourselves in the foot.

Woodrow Wilson was a former professor just like our President. He advised the victorious allies not to punish a beaten Germany collectively after World War I. If they had taken his advice, World War II—the most horrible conflict in human history—might never have happened.

As did happen, Harry Truman advised against the coup in Iran that toppled Mossadegh, but as former president. Ike went ahead. The result is the Islamic Republic we see today. Rash decisions have consequences that cannot be reversed.

Today our President can make his own decision and be his own man. He can be wise and right despite the inevitable massive pressure to do wrong. We should support him in his lonely wisdom. Starting a premature war before we know where Iran is really headed would be a strategic and moral blunder worthy of Kim Jong Un.

Footnote 1: Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. I have seen the video of Dubya walking hand-in-hand with King Abdullah. I have even linked it in one of my posts. Yet today the video is “unavailable.”

That sounds like some Soviet commissar erasing history, doesn’t it? But it’s easy to do in a free market with enforceable copyright law. Some rich donor to the GOP offers the copyright owner a price he can’t refuse. It might even be Dubya himself, or his family. Then the purchaser-new copyright owner has YouTube take the video down.

Erasing history? You bet. A figment of my imagination? Not hardly. I taught copyright law for 26 years. I used to teach the case of Rosemont Enterprises, Inc. v. Random House, Inc., in which the late mogul Howard Hughes used precisely these tactics to suppress an unauthorized biography. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, refused to support the suppression. But today the suppression of the Dubya-with-Abdullah video is an accomplished fact, unless and until Google or someone else with money comes forward to contest it in court.



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